The prints and paintings of Sydney Lee

Sydney Lee by Walter Benington (c 1920)
Sydney Lee by Walter Benington (c 1920)

The artist I am featuring today is the Englishman, Sydney Lee, who was much-admired for his paintings and prints of landscapes and architectural subjects.  He travelled widely in search of suitable subjects and was ever on the look-out for picturesque old buildings.  Lee was a pioneering artist and an early advocate of wood engraving as a fine art medium and a proponent of colour woodcuts as had been seen in Japanese art.   He was a resourceful and multi-talented artist and printmaker who produced numerous drypoints, aquatints, mezzotints, lithographs, wood engravings and woodcuts.

Sydney Lee was born in August 1866 in Broughton, Manchester.  He was the third of four children of William and Hannah Lee.  His father was a successful cotton manufacturer and also, for a time, a city alderman.  His father had come from a very prosperous and prominent Lancashire family who had a string of mills around Lancashire and the neighbouring counties.  Sydney had two elder siblings, an elder sister, Kate and an elder brother, Herbert as well as a younger brother, Frank. When Sydney was still very young his father moved the family into a large house in nearby Prestwich.   Although the family was steeped in a history of commerce and industry there was also something of an artistic heritage attached to the family business as they had been, going back to the eighteenth century, designers and creators of decorative textiles.

Both Sydney’s brothers, Herbert and Frank, after finishing their schooling, went into the family business.  For them, following their father’s footsteps was a natural progression.  However Sydney did not view it similarly but reluctantly acquiesced to join Herbert in the business but it proved ill-fated.   Sydney just did not have the business acumen and following a number of ill-judged decisions his father and brother decided that Sydney should take a lesser role in the company.  In a way this proved a godsend to Sydney who had also convinced his parents that his future lay in the world of art.  His father begrudgingly admitted that his son’s ambitions were serious ones and so, when Sydney was twenty-one, he allowed him to work in the company’s office in the morning and in the afternoon attend the Manchester School of Art.

The House with closed Shutters,Venice by Sydney Lee ca. 1926. Oil on canvas
The House with closed Shutters,Venice by Sydney Lee ca. 1926.
Oil on canvas

It was at the Manchester school of Art that Sydney Lee was tutored by the head of the school, the Irish-born sculptor, Richard Henry Albert Willis.  It was during these early days at the school that Sydney learnt about sculpture, relief modelling and it was also the time when he became interested in metal working and wood working as a method of printmaking.  During his tenure at the art school he received a number of awards and had some of his design work exhibited at the Royal Academy.

In 1891 Sydney’s father died.  Sydney, by then, had established himself as an artist but decided that London, not Manchester, was the place to be for his artistic career to develop and so with some financial help from his two brothers, Sydney headed for the capital, where he set up his studio.   In 1893, two years after re-locating to the capital, Sydney married.  His wife was Edith Mary Elgar, the daughter of Frederick Elgar, who ran a very successful oil cake business.  The happy couple left the shores of England and embarked on a year-long honeymoon in Italy.   At the end of their Italian stay, the couple moved to Paris where Sydney attended the Atelier Colarossi with the intention of honing is artistic skills, which included time spent at the atelier’s life classes.

      Sydney Lee a photograph (1897)
Sydney Lee
a photograph (1897)

The couple returned to England in 1895 and set up home in Holland Park Road in Kensington, a very fashionable address and one which announced that Sydney Lee was part of the artistic elite of London.  Lee was now in good company for his past and present neighbours included the painters Frederic, Lord Leighton, Thomas Sheard and Harold Speed.  One way to announce one’s arrival on the artistic scene was to exhibit some of one’s work and Sydney Lee did just that submitting many of his works to exhibitions held by various institutions.  There is an interesting photograph dating 1897 taken in St Ives of the thirty-one year old artist.  The pose is one of a self-confident and dashing young moustachioed painter, palette and brushes in hand, wearing a neckerchief and cummerbund.  Here, before us, we have the dandified artist.  It must have just been a passing phase as once settled into London life his outward appearance became that of a respectable gentleman, one befitting a future Royal Academician.

His first work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1900 and then from 1909 until his death forty years later, he regularly put forward works for inclusion at their Summer exhibitions.  He was a member of a number of artistic societies, such as the Royal Society of British Artists, Society of Painters, Sculptors and Gravers and was a regular exhibitor at the Goupil Gallery on London’s Regent Street.  In 1920, he became a founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers.  His work was also to be seen in exhibitions across Europe and America. Sydney Lee was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1922 and eight years later, in 1930, a Royal Academician and a Senior Member in 1942.   He was an active member of the R.A. and held the post of R.A.Treasurer between 1933 and 1940.

The Bridge, Staithes by Sydney Lee. (1904)
The Bridge, Staithes by Sydney Lee. (1904)

One of the greatest influences on Sydney Lee was Japanese prints and he was to build up a large personal collection of these works.   He would often imitate methods use by the Japanese woodcut printers to produce some of his own works.  An example of this can be seen in his 1904 woodcut on mulberry paper, entitled The Bridge, Staithes.   The prints were of an old rickety wooden trestle bridge, which at the time crossed the Roxby Beck at Staithes, a one-time thriving North Yorkshire coastal fishing village.    There were one hundred prints of this work in five different colours, some depicting the moonlit scene at night whilst others were a daytime depiction.

The Sloop Inn by Sydney Lee (1904)
The Sloop Inn by Sydney Lee (1904)

Another interesting colour woodcut was one of a pub in St Ives.  It was entitled The Sloop Inn, which Sydney Lee completed in 1904.  Sydney and his wife Edith would often visit Cornwall and in particular, St Ives where they stayed in a small terraced house for most of 1896.  Sydney found St Ives and the surrounding area was awash with interesting vistas of the harbour which could be seen from the overlooking hills and as he was always fascinated by architecture he was in his element as he studied the small and quaint cottages belonging to the local fishermen, which were dotted around the harbour and bay.   Cornwall, because of its views and favourable weather and light, lent itself to en plein air painting, and was a veritable magnet for artists.

Boatbuilding, St Ives by Sydney Lee (c.1905-10)
Boatbuilding, St Ives by Sydney Lee (c.1905-10)

Sydney Lee enjoyed his time in St Ives.  Although we look upon the Cornish coastal town as a place of tourism, Lee always viewed it and other small fishing villages as working environments and not merely as places people visited on holiday.  His works featuring St Ives concentrated on this facet of life in a small coastal town or village.  Somewhere between 1905 and 1910 he completed a colour woodcut entitled Boatbuilding, St Ives in which we see two men working on the wooden skeletal hull of a boat at the Wharf in St Ives. In the left background behind the black-hulled boat is The Sloop Inn.   Sydney Lee also painted an ink and watercolour work of the scene and it became his Diploma Work when he had been elected Fellow of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1945.

The Templars’ Church, Segovia by Sydney Lee (1907)
The Templars’ Church, Segovia by Sydney Lee (1907)

In 1907 Sydney Lee visited central Spain and based himself in Segovia where he completed a number of etchings often of buildings or structures which held an architectural interest for him.  One such work was a wood engraving entitled The Templars’ Church, Segovia, which he completed that year. The Templar Iglesia Vera Cruz (Church of the True Cross) is probably the most fascinating of several impressive Romanesque churches in Segovia.  It was consecrated in 1208, and was built by the Knights Templar to house a fragment of the True Cross. Its design was based on Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The twelve-sided structure with its tower on the southern side has, at its centre, a two storey chamber where the Knights are thought to have kept vigil over the sliver of wood.  Although termed a “church” it has no parishioners and it is simply a shrine and actually, the relic of the True Cross no longer remains within its walls but is safely kept in the nearby village church at Zamarramala.

During the mid-1920’s Sydney Lee spent a lot of time in Italy, especially Rome.  He loved the beauty of the city and its architecture and painted many scenes of the Italian capital, with its architecture nearly always featuring in the works.  Of the city he said:

“… Here, in Rome, was a field of immense and stupendous variety, the old world and the new in every successive stage and period: ancient, medieval and modern; the home of the Caesars, the splendour of the Popes, the enormous constructions of modern Italy, evidence of the enterprise and scientific skill of that fervid and energetic nation, the whole illuminated by that wonderful Roman sun.  Seen for the first time by a native of northern climes a new world reveals itself, a different light, a splendour and liveliness of aspect…” 

Venetian Merchant by Sydney Lee (1928)
Venetian Merchant by Sydney Lee (1928)

I really like his wood engraving in black on smooth Japan paper which he completed in 1928.  It is entitled A Venetian Merchant.   In the work we can see an elderly Venetian merchant, bent over with age, crossing the Ponte della Paglia and in the background is depicted the Bridge of Sighs.  Seeing the decrepit figure on the bridge causes me to recall the Shylock character of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  We see, in the right foreground, the eastern corner of the Doge’s Palace with its Gothic bas-relief sculpture depicting the drunkenness of Noah, a scene which Michelangelo had depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel over four centuries earlier.   Four years before the completion of this woodcut, in 1924, Lee had exhibited an oil painting of the same subject titled On the Palace Bridge.

The Red Tower by Sydney Lee (1928
The Red Tower by Sydney Lee (1928

Another beautiful painting was completed by Lee in 1928 was entitled The Red Tower.  This oil on canvas work once again highlights his love of ancient structures which had managed to avoid any crass modern makeovers.  The Red Tower, in the title of the work, is the Torre dei Conte, which is a medieval fortified tower situated close to the Colosseum in Rome.  It was built in 1238 by Richard Conti who was the brother of the papal leader, Pope Innocent III.  Although it was originally over fifty meters tall, the upper floors were destroyed in a fourteenth century earthquake and it is now just less than thirty meters high.   In the foreground we see horse-drawn carts crossing the cobbled streets.  The warm colour of the buildings and the blue skies add to the feeling of it being a hot day brought on by the penetrating rays of the sun, which is out of picture but somewhere high up to the left.    This work was presented to the Royal Academy in 1930 as his Diploma Work.  Diploma Works are works of art presented by artists upon their election as Members of the Royal Academy.

In October 1937 the Colnaghi Gallery in London, who were the exclusive agent for his prints, staged a retrospective of Sydney Lee’s prints.  It was his first solo exhibition.   Colnaghi held a second solo exhibition of his work in February 1939 and a third final one in January 1945.  This was Sydney Lee’s final exhibition. Sydney Lee died in London in October 1949, aged 83.  His wife, Edith, died three years later.

I was fortunate to attend a small exhibition of Sydney Lee’s work at the Royal Academy early last year and it was then that I bought the book by Robert Meyrick entitled Sydney Lee.  Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, from which I have got most of the information for this blog.  If you liked the few prints I have included in the blog, you will not be disappointed by this beautiful book.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

2 thoughts on “The prints and paintings of Sydney Lee”

  1. Thank you so much for introducing us to this artist, unknown to me in the past. The Red Tower is particularly striking, the tracks of carts and vehicles, the foreground shadow, the bit of greenery high up on the tower…all lovely details.

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